On Culture

In 'Kite Runner,' A Culture Swoops Into View: Our Own

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 16, 2007

In "The Kite Runner," a film set in Afghanistan, American popular culture is remixed into a giant global mash-up. Charles Bronson is mistaken for an Iranian, young Afghan kite fighters steel themselves for battle using the lingo of Wild West gunslingers and audiences receive quick confirmation that in the 1970s, no one looked especially stylish.

It's impossible not to be charmed by the two boys who star in the film, which opened Friday and is based on the best-selling book about friendship, betrayal and guilt. Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada and Zekeria Ebrahimi have faces far more expressive and eloquent than any of the dialogue they recite. In particular, Ahmad Khan, who plays Hassan, has a face of such exquisite soulfulness that it's almost too much to bear. It takes approximately five seconds to fall in love with him.

Because the boys' story is set in Afghanistan in the 1970s, both speak entirely in Dari. There are English subtitles, but the young actors' facial expressions are especially important in the telling of their story. English-speaking audiences don't have the benefit of subtle vocal intonations to help them connect with the characters.

But they do have American popular culture. It's there from the moment Zekeria, who plays the privileged young Amir, appears on-screen. He's wearing a striped sweater and ski vest and looks as though he has stepped from the pages of any class photo from middle America. The boys are obsessed with "The Magnificent Seven" and its stars, Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson. They've seen the movie so many times that they can quote dialogue. And the streets of their home town are filled with Western tourists; bohemians and hippies wander through the market.

There's nothing terribly obvious or heavy-handed in the way American popular culture is portrayed. It's simply an undeniable part of their daily life.

It's both embarrassing and parochial to say the story of these two boys gains resonance thanks to these familiar details. But it's true. Audiences don't need these touchstones to ease them into the lives of those who speak different languages and live in unfamiliar places, but they help. Images of an old American western giving children who speak Dari as much pleasure as some child in Iowa closes a gap. It makes the distance between those lives a little less daunting.

For a long time, American films, television shows and music have served as cultural ambassadors, helping to shape the way in which the world relates to us. The manner in which minority groups or women are portrayed in our movies lets others know, to some degree, how they are valued in our society. The culture we export serves as potent public relations.

There's a scene in "The Kite Runner" when Amir gives Hassan a slingshot for his birthday and tells him, as a way of pointing out its quality and prestige, that it was made in America. It's hard not to turn nostalgic for a time when a toy could be such a simple and positive symbol.

But "The Kite Runner" also underscores how it's impossible to retain control over our popular culture. It's constantly being reshaped and given new meaning as it drifts from this country to another -- whether in the form of French jazz or Italian hip-hop.

In an exchange between the boys after yet another viewing of "The Magnificent Seven," Hassan wonders aloud if they might bump into Charles Bronson if they take a trip to Iran. Why would he think Bronson would be in Iran? Hassan assumes the star is Iranian because that is the accent he hears from the actor who has dubbed Bronson's voice.

Hassan knows the movie's plot by heart -- seven gunslingers from the United States are hired to protect a Mexican village from bandits -- but it never seems to occur to him that the actors are American. He doesn't love the film because it represents something American. He isn't dreaming about visiting the American West.

Instead, he mixes American popular culture with the world he knows. The result is something altogether different.

The boys quote from the film and flirt with a game of Wild West shoot-'em-up, using their fingers as guns. But they use their favorite line -- "I admire your notion of fair odds, mister" -- when it really matters, to pump themselves up for a traditional kite-fighting contest.

We always hear about the popularity of American movie stars abroad. And we see singers performing in front of screaming fans in other countries, the audience singing along to words they sometimes don't understand. American popular culture often is viewed as this behemoth mythmaking commodity shipped off to other countries to be consumed in one eager gulp. And sometimes, it is.

But in "The Kite Runner," we're reminded that more often than not, it's consumed in bits and pieces. It might be the main component in a global popular culture, but it's still just one ingredient. Hassan and Amir watch "The Magnificent Seven" and embrace its toughness, its spirit of adventure and the sense of determination displayed by the characters. The one thing they don't do is define those traits as particularly American.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company